A different homecoming for Ilgauskas

Zydrunas Ilgauskas has played 391 games in front of the Cleveland crowd -- but none like Thursday night's game. Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty Images

MIAMI -- Zydrunas Ilgauskas doesn't want to think about it right now, he'd rather concentrate on how to do his part to get him and his Heat teammates out of a slump that has prompted players-only meetings and YouTube montages on LeBron James' habit of bumping coaches.

But the schedule won't allow it. This week, the Heat make their first post-"Decision" visit to Cleveland.

In this endlessly fascinating situation, llgauskas is in the middle but not in the way a center prefers. On Thursday, when James faces his former fan base on his old floor, Ilgauskas will likely be welcomed as a returning hero.

During his 13 years in Cleveland, Ilgauskas formed a unique bond with the fans. Ilgauskas said over the weekend that he's uncomfortable with what he is likely to face on Thursday, even if it is warm. There will also be a faction that will probably cheer harder for him just to spite James.

Ilgauskas has done some thinking about what it's going to be like and how he should act considering the unprecedented circumstances. The professional response and the emotional response will be different and Ilgauskas said he intends to act like a pro.

That means whatever the atmosphere, Ilgauskas plans to treat it like any other road game and behave accordingly. Even if that means defending James, who will be entrenched in the villain role. And even if it means not acknowledging cheers if they come from fans who boo his teammate.

Ilgauskas said the Cavs organization has not told him they plan to do anything special for his return.

"The reality is that I'm playing for the Miami Heat right now and our team is going to get a harsh reception," Ilgauskas said. "I'm part of this team and I'm not separating myself from them. These are my guys now. I love playing with them. We're going through some tough times right now but I'm in the trenches with them."

Other than James (before this past July), no player in Cavs history has been showered with as much love as Ilgauskas. No player has played more games, gotten more rebounds, blocked more shots or earned more money in Cleveland than Ilgauskas.

The fans gave standing ovations when he broke records, cried and supported him when his wife miscarried twins several years ago and celebrated when the couple adopted two boys last year.

The city identifies with him even though he's a millionaire Lithuanian. After five foot surgeries that cost him two and a half seasons, Ilgauskas became a two-time All-Star and his hard work resonated. He also provided a link for fans that bridged a 17-win Cavs squad to the teams that reached the NBA Finals and twice won more than 60 games.

But Ilgauskas said that on Thursday, he'll have to put his relationship with the Cavs fans behind his support for his team.

"I appreciate Cleveland, it will always be a home to me," Ilgauskas said. "The fans have meant so much to me over the years and that will never change. But we happen to be on a different side of the barricade this time."

Last season was the toughest of Ilgauskas' career. With the arrival of Shaquille O'Neal, Ilgauskas became a bench player for the first time.

A year ago this week he was slated to break the team's all-time games played record which, to him, was the most valuable of all because of all he'd gone through to get healthy. But Cavs coach Mike Brown decided not to play him in that game, which was against Dallas at home.

There were varying explanations of what happened, but at the end of the night, a party Ilgauskas had organized to celebrate was canceled.

In February, the Cavs traded him to acquire Antawn Jamison in a deal they thought would put them over the top in their quest for a title and to re-sign James. Ilgauskas arranged a buyout with the Wizards and returned to Cleveland after waiting a month, but it wasn't the same. He didn't play much and things felt different.

When the season ended, well before James decided to play with the Heat, Ilgauskas knew he was moving on.

"I felt if I was going to continue to play, and I wanted to, I needed a change," Ilgauskas said. "I knew that my days as a Cav were over. … They were going a different direction and that is fine by me."

Ilgauskas moved his family to Miami when he decided to sign with the Heat a week after James did. He turned down several other teams, knowing the Heat needed a center and that he had good chemistry with James.

He's won the starting job with the Heat. He's shot the ball well playing pick-and-roll sets with James and Dwyane Wade, currently hitting at 56 percent from the field. He's struggled guarding some active big men, as has been the case for about a decade.

But in general, he will be the same player when he goes back to Cleveland. He just won't be displaying the same personality.

"It has been hard for us here, I've been fighting every game and have been preoccupied with that," Ilgauskas said. "Thursday is going to be hard for us, it is going to be emotional for me and I know that."